The Eaton’s Building – A New Life?

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
A local architect’s big idea for the downtown centrepiece.

by Brian G. Spare

In 1869, Timothy Eaton opened his department store in Toronto. It offered people a different shopping experience in that they could now go to one store to buy furniture, appliances, clothing, cosmetics, sporting and yard goods, notions and groceries. Timothy Eaton’s goal was to deliver quality merchandise and give his customers exceptional service. His concern for customer service was exemplary, and his satisfaction guaranteed or your money back policy was revolutionary for its day. In 1885, Eaton’s introduced shoppers to the passenger elevator. Eaton’s was also active in the community holding company picnics and sporting events such as curling bonspiels. All this served to build an empire that would stretch from coast to coast across our nation. By the mid 1900s, Eaton’s was the largest department store chain in Canada with the iconic Eaton’s catalogue in nearly every household.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

The latest fashions and conveniences

In 1927, Eaton’s opened its first store in the Lakehead, a groceteria, located on North Cumberland Street. By 1936, it had moved to the corner of Court Street and Red River Road where the present day Bank of Montreal is. On October 12, 1938, Eaton’s opened a department store here in a building it constructed across the intersection adjacent to the Ruttan Block on Court Street. The groceteria moved into the department store. Eaton’s provided the people of Northwestern Ontario with the latest fashions and conveniences. Business was steady until the 1970s when the retail environment started to change. Because of the changing environment, more and more businesses were closing leaving behind empty buildings destined for the wrecking ball. A call for urban renewal rang out. In the downtown north core, plans for renewal centered around the Eaton’s store. For its part in urban renewal, the T. Eaton Company spent $3 million doubling the size of the Thunder Bay store to 150,000 sq. ft. which would then encompass an entire downtown block. The expanded store would employ 250 full and part-time people.

Saul Laskin, mayor of Thunder Bay at the time said, “I’m delighted they (Eaton’s) chose Thunder Bay as one of their major centres.”

Modern features unequalled by most major cities in North America

Mayor Laskin saw the construction of the entire Eaton’s complex as being completed in three years. Indeed, the outlook for the Eaton’s complex for everyone involved was a rosy one. The rest of this renewal project would have a walkway from the Eaton’s store across Park Avenue to a number of new structures comprising the Keskus Harbour Mall which would stretch all the way south to Pearl Street, and west to east from Court Street to Cumberland Street. Everything would be connected by climate-controlled walkways. A multi-level parking structure would be erected for the mall. Eventually, a multi-story hotel would be built with a senior’s residence. The complex would have modern features unequalled by most major cities in North America that focused on people’s comfort and easy access to shopping facilities. When complete, the Eaton’s complex would employ up to 1000 people. In the end, the walkway from Eaton’s over Park Avenue to some of the retail stores was built as well as the parking structure, but not the hotel.

The fortunes of Eaton’s waned

Two years after Canada celebrated its 125 anniversary as a nation, Eaton’s celebrated its 125th year in business. But its longevity wouldn’t save it from the changing face of the economy and retail market. The fortunes of Eaton’s waned with the store in Thunder Bay closing its doors for good October 10, 1997. The T. Eaton Company went into bankruptcy in 1999. With Eaton’s gone, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before Keskus suffered the same fate. Keskus Harbour Mall was sold to the Ontario Casino Corporation in August of 1999 for an undisclosed sum. The corporation then razed a parking lot to put up paradise when it demolished the mall along with the parking structure to build a casino on the site.

The Eaton’s building was sold to another developer in 2000 for cost unknown who has left the building relatively unchanged. Definitely Superior Art Gallery was the first tenant of the empty building under new ownership. It moved into the basement where it resides to this day. Over the last 20 years, Definitely Superior seen tenants come and go. The Eaton’s building has been home to call centres, a dance studio, a theatre, a band, a roller derby, and art studios. For the most part, the building has remained underutilized begging to be fully used once more. Recently, a local architect proposed a plan to breathe new life into the Eaton’s building.

Thunder Bay as a destination

John Stephenson of Form Architecture in Thunder Bay and President of the Ontario Architectural Association recently proposed a viable use for the Eaton’s building. While at a conference at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre in Nanaimo, BC, it struck him how well the conference centre, being situated in the middle of the downtown, fit into the Nanaimo downtown. The ground floor had shops and the upper floor had a conference centre. He immediately thought of the Eaton’s building in Thunder Bay and wondered if it could be repurposed into a conference centre like the one in Nanaimo. He discussed the idea with a number of people when he returned to Thunder Bay. Many were intrigued, and thought the idea was worth taking a closer look at. The building is structurally sound, has a loading bay, capacity for kitchen and dining facilities, as well as the floor space to accommodate conference facilities. In addition, Stephenson felt the building could support another floor for the creation of a large venue. Thunder Bay currently does not have a facility big enough to hold a large conference of 1200 people, but the Eaton’s building could. It is situated in the core of the vibrant Heart of the Harbour district giving people who attend a conference there other things to do. Converting the Eaton’s building into a conference centre would be a major undertaking but worth the effort.

John Stephenson added, “Being able to host conferences of up to 1200 people would serve to promote Thunder Bay as a destination and the economic spin offs could be huge.”

Perhaps the buoyant outlook of the urban renewal planners in the 1970s was only just ahead of its time. The thought of having a world-class conference centre to host the world, in the middle of the downtown north core, holds the promise of the optimism envisioned 40 years ago. It’s a vision worth considering and a worthy goal for our world-class city of Thunder Bay.

Thank you to the following who assisted with this article:

John Stephenson, Form Architecture

CBQ Radio

Definitely Superior Art Gallery

Thunder Bay Public Library

Thunder Bay Historical Museum

City of Thunder Bay Archives

Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com

*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*

Published by Brian G. Spare

I am a thinker and very creative person by nature and love to work with my hands and head and put my heart into all of it. Life is a journey and I am with it all the way ready to embark on the next adventure that life has for me.

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